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Ron DeSantis loses again to Disney

The Florida governor’s fight with Disney has become a political liability. But he can’t afford to retreat.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse take part in a press conference for the European premiere of the “Disney 100” exhibition on April 17, 2023, in Munich.
Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Florida Republican Gov. DeSantis has been foiled by Disney once again.

The new board DeSantis appointed to oversee the company’s Orlando theme parks has discovered a new wrinkle in its plans. The board’s chairman said Wednesday that another “11th hour agreement” was signed before the board took over that allows Disney to set its own utility rates for its resorts through 2032. By that time, DeSantis, who is term-limited and cannot run for reelection in 2026, will be long gone.

It’s the latest development in the ever-expanding culture war between DeSantis and Disney executives, who angered the governor last year after they publicly opposed his “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people. That fight escalated last month when it came to light that Disney had managed to quietly disenfranchise the new board without DeSantis’s allies taking notice, and has continued as the governor tries to clamp down on the company in retaliation.

DeSantis’s efforts to punish Disney for being “woke” have become a political headache, with his potential 2024 Republican presidential primary opponents, including former President Donald Trump and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, using it to go on the attack. But at this point, DeSantis is probably in too deep to retreat.

“Once you pick a fight with a bully, even though it starts to get troubling, you probably need to finish it,” said Robert Cahaly, senior strategist and pollster at the Trafalgar Group and a former Republican political consultant. “He needs to be able to say, ‘I did everything I could do. I didn’t quit because it got hot.’”

DeSantis has been trying to redeem himself in a public relations battle that he has so far been losing. Earlier this week, he announced new legislation to require additional inspections at Disney theme park rides and its monorail connecting its hotels and theme parks. He also suggested the new state board could convert land in and around the Orlando theme parks into a state park, a competing amusement park, or a state prison — and that the board should investigate raising taxes on Disney.

Meanwhile, Disney has been planning its first event to celebrate Pride Month at its California theme park, complete with themed entertainment and specialty menu items, in a return to the issue that first drew the governor’s ire. It follows the revelation last month that Disney lawyers schemed to strip the new board, appointed with DeSantis loyalists, of most of its governing powers.

DeSantis’s efforts to strike back might be enough to appease Republicans, who are highly animated against so-called “woke corporations” that embrace progressive racial and social justice policies. Cahaly said that Trafalgar’s polls have found most Republicans say they would be less likely to do business with such companies and less likely to buy their products, as evidenced by the recent conservative boycott of Bud Light.

“They don’t want corporations to be conservative,” Cahaly said. “They just want them to be nonpartisan and to stay out of politics.”

But DeSantis’s political opponents still see his feud with Disney as a vulnerability. “I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions towards Disney,” said Christie, who is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks on whether to run, in an interview with Semafor Tuesday. Trump wrote in a post on his social network Truth Social that DeSantis is being “absolutely destroyed by Disney” and suggested that the company would be justified in leaving Florida.

Together with DeSantis’s drop in the polls, speculation in GOP circles that he may have waited too long to formally announce a 2024 run, and that even Florida Republicans are endorsing Trump over their governor, the continued tit-for-tat with Disney may stunt DeSantis’s presidential candidacy before it has even formally begun.

DeSantis has made his fight with Disney a pillar of his political identity

A key part of DeSantis’s pitch for the presidency is his willingness to take on so-called “woke” corporations, with Disney as the primary example. Being seen as having been defeated by such a corporation would weaken his candidacy. And it could boost other Republican candidates with more experience using anti-woke rhetoric to their advantage, like right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy, who kicked off his campaign in February and has been dubbed “the CEO of Anti-Woke, Inc.” by the New Yorker.

The governor’s battle with Disney is the subject of an entire chapter titled “The Magic Kingdom of Woke Corporatism” in DeSantis’s latest book, The Courage to Be Free. He writes about how he got married at Disney World, something he says was really his wife’s idea, not knowing that he would later be “squaring off against Disney in a political battle that would reverberate across the nation.”

DeSantis describes corporations like Disney as caving to the “woke gender theory” being pushed by the media by taking a stand on issues such as equal rights for LGBTQ+ Americans that he thinks they shouldn’t get involved in. And he writes about how he orchestrated a surprise session to eliminate Disney’s special tax status, which had allowed it to develop and maintain its properties in Orlando with relative independence — the “Florida equivalent of the shot heard ‘round the world.”

“Leaders must be willing to stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda,” DeSantis writes.

That coup, of course, crumbled, with Disney turning the loss of its status into a win for the company. DeSantis claimed Tuesday that Disney has tried to “circumvent … the will of the people” in undermining the new board of the company’s special tax district. And his oversight board will reportedly soon unveil its plans to strip Disney of the powers it recently granted itself.

But it’s not clear that Florida voters ever really wanted DeSantis to take on Disney. The governor may have won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points and ushered in a red wave in Florida in 2022. But Disney, the state’s largest employer, still proved more popular than him across multiple polls in the last year.

Still, it’s consistent with DeSantis’s attempts to position himself as a leader in culture war battles including the one with Disney, but also on restricting abortion access and loosening gun restrictions.

“If he’s going to come across as a social issue warrior, he can’t give up a social issue fight,” Cahaly said.

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